One year later: Lessons learned from the Boston Marathon bombing emergency response

The aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated the power of an effective emergency response. Law enforcement officials immediately snapped into action to control the situation; protect the victims, spectators, and athletes; and move mountains to identify and track down the suspects. A lot went right in the first minutes, hours, and days after the bombing, thanks in part to the advanced preparation of the agencies involved.

The Harvard Kennedy School of Government echoes this assessment in its newly released report on the Boston Marathon bombing emergency response. Aiming to extract lessons learned to improve the performance of first responders in future emergencies, the report lauds the overall preparation and coordination of a variety of law enforcement agencies as the catalyst for the Boston Strong response. But the report also noted several occasions where better communication or coordination among responding law enforcement agencies could have made the response Boston Stronger. 

Here are some of my key takeaways from the report, lessons learned that can be applied to future crises, and some of my own thoughts on how technology can help bridge the gap:

1. Senior leaders should lead from the top.

The impulse to lead from the ground is often strong among senior leaders, and the Boston Marathon bombing was no exception. The report tells of a senior leader who had to physically pull a peer (by his gun belt) away from a tactical situation to focus on strategy. And strategy, as the report recommends, is where senior leaders should spend their time, avoiding tactical decisions or direct oversight of basic operations. In an emergency, everyone needs to step up to a more strategic approach, and fight the strong impulse to step down to a more tactical approach.

But leading strategy from the top demands a clear picture of what’s happening on the ground. Technology that provides a layered approach to information collection, analysis, and dissemination can help. For example, video streamed from multiple locations could be combined with other information sources like radio and updates from CAD to give a centralized view of events. This is where a physical security information management (PSIM) solution can help, providing senior leaders with expansive situational awareness and the ability to drill into important details that get flagged as events unfold.

2. Senior leaders should avoid the firehose of raw information.

Technology can help drive strategy by keeping leaders in the loop with what’s happening on the ground, but only if leaders stay out of the weeds. As the report makes clear, “Senior leaders should not be unduly exposed to the enormous flow of raw information, lest their attention be diverted from strategic issues and problems.” Technology can automatically sift through the wealth of information -- video, images, social media, records and more -- to identify the most relevant and important data. Solutions including PSIM, multimedia incident information management tools, and web intelligence can save significant time by organizing information and connecting the dots, allowing analysts to review the information in real-time and inform senior leaders’ next steps.

In fact, analysts can use these technologies to add value outside of major events like the Boston Marathon, and assist with investigations into major crime areas as well -- gangs, prostitution rings, human trafficking, and so on. Bringing on analysts for everyday work might not only speed up investigations, but also allow analysts to familiarize themselves with their tools and instill confidence in the validity and timeliness of their data.

3. Coordination is key, especially at street level.

More than ten different agencies involved in the Boston Marathon bombing response had trained to work together on large-scale events. But even with extensive preparations, the response didn’t come without a few hiccups. The Harvard Kennedy School of Government report references a specific incident in which an ambulance transporting an injured police officer had to make long detours because the many police vehicles on scene blocked each other in. In another anecdote, two officers from different SWAT units disagreed over who was supposed to be holding position on a particular rooftop. Neither officer would back down and both ended up manning the position.

Technology can help integrate the flow of communication up, down, and across agencies, surfacing potential bottlenecks and other issues more quickly and improving coordination. Of course, this isn’t just a technology issue, as it speaks to politics and control, but working together to put an integrated PSIM in place can help resolve these issues before they hamper operations.

4. Reconcile standard operating procedures with situational awareness.

The command structure around the Boston bombing response evolved as the day progressed, in line with the many drills rehearsed across agencies. The established and agreed-upon processes -- the standard operating procedures (SOPs) -- are the basis for every plan of action. Documenting, testing, and practicing protocols for many standard tasks instills a greater sense of cooperation, particularly with respect to organizing dispatch and command across agencies, as the Boston Marathon bombing response certainly shows.

Managing a real event is dynamic and no agency can plan for every eventuality, but better situational awareness can increase the effectiveness of SOPs. Situational awareness has two parts: what’s happening now, and what resources do I have or need? Understanding what resources are available or needed, ideally in real time, can accelerate the response and aid execution of standard protocols.

Technology can help facilitate the application of SOPs to a real-world situation. PSIM, for example, offers a common incident management system that steps through tasks, distributes sub-tasks to various agencies, tracks their completion, escalates tasks when necessary, and generates automatic status reports to keep everyone in the loop.


5. Public-private collaboration is essential to speedy incident resolution

One final lesson I take from the Boston Marathon bombing is the wealth of information to be gained from collaboration among public and private entities, particularly when it comes to sharing video and other security information. By accessing and tying together the video from different systems, a PSIM can gain a more complete picture of an incident and identify anomalies that, once investigated, may provide valuable clues that break a case.

In Boston, this analysis was happening after the fact, but the right PSIM system, connected to the right cameras, can use live video to give appropriate law enforcement agencies a complete view of an event as it happens. Of course, this requires public and private entities to work together to establish formal video sharing agreements, but such collaboration up front can eliminate the need to “knock on doors” to obtain video after something bad happens.

Building on the success of the Boston bombing emergency response, technology can strengthen the bridge between tactical operations and senior leaders, between SOPs and strategy, and among law enforcement agencies of every stripe. The Boston Strong response was exceptional in nearly every respect, and with new technology in their corner, first responders could ensure that the next crisis is also resolved with a swift and forceful response.

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